Friday, August 24, 2007

The Breast Show in Texas

Regarding Fox TV's "Anchorwoman," now cancelled, it's pointless to be referencing the Apocalypse (Word of the Day), because that time has come and gone. Yes, the TV show was as cringeworthy as I expected. And Lauren Jones's breasts were, as I also expected, as big as Texas. I'm not sure the Fox network producers can be faulted, as reality TV folks unapologetically traffic in being crass and brazen. (And a shout out to the editors who knew precisely where to put pregnant pauses for maximum effect.)

I think here the fault lies with two Tyler news executives who, knowing better, still chose to lead with their--well, let's just say they weren't using their brains when they chose to participate in yet another wholesale trashing of the business they profess to love and respect. I give a great deal of credit to the staff of KYTX for showing unusual restraint and not slapping Lauren Jones into the next county. While the former "Barker Beauty" certainly has enthusiasm to spare, she demonstrated for the unblinking eye of network television yet again why the TV news business is held in such low esteem by the viewing public.

But you can't blame the anchor-wannabe for viewing her role as nothing more than another modeling assignment, but with (insert cringe here) more opinions. This is what young women all over America see as their divine right and purpose in life. Why would any of them aspire to be a teacher or doctor when an anchor job looks like so much more fun? And with free makeup!

No, the blame goes to a management team that wanted it both ways--boost ratings with a sweet, but dim, blonde while at the same time telegraphing to the audience that the effort shouldn't be taken seriously. After all, folks, it's just news.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Quagmire Question

So today George W. decides at last to invoke the specter of Vietnam for his 1000th excuse for remaining in Iraq. Remember, until now he steadfastly avoided any mention of the Vietnam conflict because he hadn't read that far in the syllabus yet. Now he's got the urge to dredge up that awful war to justify one of his own creation.
As I understand his rationale, we can't condemn the Iraqi people to the collective fate of that era's "boat people" or the Cambodians who died in the now-infamous "killing fields."

Of course, what young Americans can't know is that the fear-mongering elite of the 60's and 70's used the near-certainty of Communism's evil spread to justify the enormous expense in lives and dollars to keep us in an unwinnable war in Southeast Asia. At the time Washington policy-makers were embracing the so-called "Domino Theory," in which a victorious, and therefore emboldened, Communist North Vietnam would spreads its tentacles throughout the region and then, in a natural progession seen only by the enlightened at the Pentagon and the White House, to the western shores of the United States. Gee, does that sound familiar or what?

So Mr. Bush decides to re-visit this time-worn and unjustifiable defensive posture to keep us yoked to his appallingly stupid foreign policy blunder that is the current Iraq war. Actually it isn't much of a war as it is a conflict that parallels precisely the Soviet failure to beat back the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 80's. Oh, that's right. We schooled the Afghan freedom fighters, including one celebrated leader named Osama bin Laden. But, darn it, we tend to forget that the mighty Soviet war machine was routed by rebels riding horses and camels.

The only bright spot in today's news about Iraq is that--at last--Condoleezza Rice has succeeded in putting career diplomats in positions of power to make the big decisions for the remaining months of the Bush Presidency. Gone are the imbeciles who got us into this mess, people whose only credentials were writing checks and looking the other way while their political golden boy and benefactor proved time and again why on at least one occasion Barbara Bush should have used birth control.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Child of the 60's

There's a terrific drama on AMC this summer called "Mad Men." It's a look at the advertising industry as practiced on Madison Avenue in 1960. The producers did their homework because the art direction is spot-on. I wish more of the plots centered on the actual work, as "thirtysomething" did with the lives of young ad execs Elliot and Michael. There are occasional references to actual ads of the times (the Volkswagen Bug, for example) in "Mad Men," and a few scenes about ad campaigns in conference rooms, but the series, as I guess these things must, focuses more on the dramatic tension of the characters in their personal lives. That's a shame, because as the era recedes in the collective memories of Baby Boomers, a lot of what made the 60's special is also being lost. I was just school-age in 1960 and yet I have vivid memories of growing up in an America without personal computers, cellphones, cable TV, videogames or even regular commercial air travel. Getting on a plane and going anywhere was considered a novelty, and mostly for the rich.

My mom had bought a Plymouth station wagon the previous year and all the men in our neighborhood came over to laugh at its push-button transmission. She was a widow and did the best she could raising my sister and me. I actually thought the car was cool, with its silver-tone dashboard and fins. In those days, cars were a big part of my life. I collected the die-cast models produced by Dinky and Corgi. I remember going to the big department store at the nearby mall and wishing I could afford to buy the ones priced at $3.50. I got an allowance of a buck a week from my grandfather, but a dollar didn't stretch very far, even in 1960. I was also heavily into slot-car racing. A company called Aurora sold big layouts in expensive gift sets that you might get at Christmas if you were lucky. The cars were small but authentically detailed. Today you can find them on eBay for $40 and up. I still have many in my collection.

Playtime required a great deal of imagination. Outside, it was games of kickball in the street or flying balsa wood planes that were really cheap from the local dime store. Woolworth's was the closest we had in my neighborhood to a convenience store. The one in my hometown was quite old, with floorboards that creaked and sagged from decades of use. When you walked in, you were hit by a not particularly enticing smell of stale popcorn and the chirp of parakeets in their cages in the back. But you could find Duncan yo-yo's and hula hoops and the little plastic soldiers that you tied to handkerchiefs. I spent many hours rolling up the soldiers in cloth and tossing them into the air. If you weighted the plastic man just right, he would float back to earth just like the soldiers in war movies on TV.

Roller skates were big in my neighborhood. But eventually, they gave way to a new invention called a "skate board," and that was what it was: a board with skate wheels nailed to the bottom. We didn't have fancy neoprene wheels or fiberglass boards, just a raw hunk of wood that we cut to size. Back then, of course, you didn't have protection for knees and elbows so everyone had fresh scars from tumbles in the driveway.

TV in my house was still black and white in 1960. Color TV was a novelty and not very advanced. The pictures looked fuzzy and unconvincing. I remember later on, when NBC promoted its new colorcasts, there was the famous unfurling peacock logo, the singing harp, and the announcer saying "brought to you in living color on N-B-C." The transition to color, once perfected, was like some sort of other-worldly magic. Thankfully, we had a color set once "Star Trek" debuted in 1964. But black-and-white TV was not as unappealing as youngsters today might think. It was what everyone had and most movies were in color by then anyway.

Looking back, I had a precocious view of the period. I was a big fan of Henry Mancini's music. He scored most of Audrey Hepburn's movies. "Peter Gunn," written for the TV show, is still one of his most famous compositions. And in those days, film music was also popular music. Rock n' roll was around in '60, but it had not yet taken over radio. Instead, solo artists like Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and a young Barbra Streisand were at the top of the charts. Broadway show tunes were also getting heavy play on the radio. And record sales boosted the popularity of music from "Camelot" and "My Fair Lady." We had a so-called "stereo" in our house and my mom played the "Warsaw Concerto" until the needle gave out.

In those days, milk was delivered to the house in glass bottles. That was a problem in summer, because the milkman would place the bottles in an unlined metal container on the back porch. If the day was going to be hot, he would drop in a few pieces of ice to keep the milk cold. Sometimes, if our timing was perfect, we could beg him for some ice to suck on. Few of the milk trucks were refrigerated, so they were usually carrying huge blocks of ice. In some neighborhoods even the bread was delivered this way. The local supermarket seemed to do just fine selling everything but bread and milk.

In my hometown, the biggest employer was the United Shoe Machinery Corp., or "Shoe." Nearly everyone's dad worked there. The company, as its name implies, made the machinery that make shoes. I am guessing the machines ended up in nearby Lawrence and Lowell, as well as in many parts of Maine. The last of those factories closed a few years ago when most shoe production was sent off-shore. I think the Caribbean is where most shoes are now made, at least when the labels don't say Bangladesh or China. There's a common belief now that the big factory near the Bass River was a heavy polluter. There's no other way to explain the distinct pockets of cancer deaths in close proximity.

But for the most part, they were innocent times. We played ball and drank Zarex (it was a flavored syrup mixed with water, much like Kool-Aid) and dreamed of becoming astronauts and cowboys. I didn't know of the racism in the Deep South or the coming danger of Communism. My world was one in which the good guys wore white hats and could shoot a soup can off a distant fence. And where Norman Rockwell painted rosy-cheeked kids with fishing poles and moms hanging out the fresh laundry. To borrow a line from a poem, we were soldiers once and young on battlefields of our own devising, fighting dragons and demons with cap guns, and saving the world until supper.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Rapture of "Ratatouille"

To begin with, I am a devoted fan of director Brad Bird, so this can't be an objective review. I have seen it twice now and might go once more before the movie is removed from theaters ahead of its DVD release. I was in Paris just once, back in 1969, and it was a disheartening experience. The city looked gray and dirty and the Eiffel Tower a rusty brown. (I have since learned the tower is painted three shades of brown, from lighter to darker, in distinct thirds, as you move from bottom to top. The gradations are designed to appeal to the eye so that the tower is darker and therefore more distinct against the sky.). I digress, which is the signature of bloggers everywhere.

"Ratatouille" presents Paris as a confection of spun sugar and neon-bright colors. The sunsets are an explosion of pinks and violets that don't really exist in nature, but then you'll never find a rat with the rarified palate of the film's star, Remy. If you don't know the story at all, it concerns the adventures of Remy and his search for a place in the universe, preferably a kitchen, where he can practice his growing expertise as a chef. The movie unfolds with Remy landing in the restaurant bearing the name of his hero and mentor, Chef Gustave. Gustave's motto is "anyone can cook." This is the most democratic approach to cooking since Betty Crocker and her eponymous cookbook. Remy teams up with the charming but inept restaurant custodian, Linguini, who has the backbone and physicality of a wet noodle. Where Bird excels as a director of these animated wonders is in giving us a geography of the place. The layout of the restaurant kitchen is introduced both in a sort of classroom primer and in a death-defying race that nearly flambes the pint-size hero. The associated dangers that a rat encounters in this upscale eatery kitchen are real because the setting is made real. The corners are sharp, the oven hot and dessert cart wheels will flatten anything in their path.

There's a sly tip of the chef's toque to the classic romantic comedy "Cyrano de Bergerac," with Remy stowed in his partner's hat and steering him through classic French cooking lessons as well as lessons in love. All it takes is a strategic tug on the lad's hair. There's also a skewering of contemporary food marketing with the notion that anything with Gustave's name plastered on it can be sold as a frozen entree. (Shades of celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito and his sudden enthusiasm for Bertolli frozen dinners.) What's refreshing about "Ratatouille," aside from bearing a name that required a pronunciation lesson in the ads, is that this story is wholly original. It's a movie a foodie will love and small fry will adore. And Peter O'Toole will never have to apologize for voicing a food critic who can drip with sarcasm the way a frypan leaves its greasy entrails on a shiny linoleum floor. He casts shadows like a J.K. Rowling "death-eater," but is redeemed and reformed by a simple act of courage. Anyone can cook, indeed. But few can direct with as much inspiration as Brad Bird.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Movie Magic

Just to show that I can rant about more than geopolitics, I want to offer some thoughts about the summer's movies. I happen to be a movie fanatic. I don't think the term "cinephile" applies, because I have yet to see all the required titles that make up the syllabus of any decent college film appreciation course. As I write this, film fans all over the world are mourning the coincidental passing of two cinema legends, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. I confess that I am way behind on the Bergman filmography, but was blown away by Antonioni's "The Passenger" in 1975. (I learned this week that the rights belong to the movie's star, Jack Nicholson.) The movie has been recently released on DVD and is worth a look. I happen to agree with those critics who judged it one of the best films of the 70's.

Okay, the summer of 2007. "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" was fun, but proved to be a mild disappointment. It was over-long and could have used more of Johnny Depp, though not as clones of himself (a cinematic vehicle I found disagreeable and head-scratching). I met Depp briefly once as an extra in his film "Benny & Joon." I can confirm he is a nice guy in an industry not know for them.

Since I was not impressed by "Shrek 2," a cynical and sad excuse for a movie if there ever was one, I didn't bother with "Shrek the Third." Yeah, it'll do amazing business and help keep Dreamworks afloat for another year.

"Spiderman 3" was underwhelming. Someone asked me why there were so many villains. All you need do is look at the companion video game for the answer. You have to wonder if the gaming companies assign employees to advise the screenwriters on projects like these. Not bad enough to have prompted me to ask for my money back, but it was a letdown after the first sequel.

"Ratatouille," on the other hand, was a revelation. Brad Bird directed this as a follow-up to his amazing "The Incredibles." It's unfortunate that Bird's work at Pixar is judged by critics solely by the box office grosses. Apparently, "Incredibles" did less than its predecessor, "Finding Nemo." And "Ratatouille" did worse than "Cars" in its opening weekend. Count me as one of those critics who found Bird's movie a lovingly-crafted and original story about bucking the odds and believing in yourself. "Anyone can cook" is the motto of a master French chef at the heart of the story and an ordinary rat takes that motto to heart in his pursuit of a career as a culinary craftsman. For once we're treated to a movie experience that isn't supported by a numeral in the title. The animation is uniformly good and the voice work is superior to anything that's been on-screen in ages. Kudos to Patton Oswalt ("The King of Queens") as Remy and Brad Garrett ("Everybody Loves Raymond") as Chef Gustave. I've seen this movie twice and expect to go back one more time before the summer ends.

Speaking of movies for foodies, "No Reservations," with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart ("Thank You for Smoking"), is a cute romantic comedy that's getting middling reviews and box office. That's a shame because I found it charming and sophisticated. Apparently, it's inferior to the original German movie, "Mostly Martha," but I haven't seen "Martha" yet so I can't comment. Zeta-Jones, in my opinion, is quite good as the career woman who has no room in her life for anything but haute cuisine. Eckhart is the devilish foil and love-smitten sous chef who upsets Zeta-Jones's life and perfect routine.

"Live Free and Die Hard" would have been my pick as the best action movie of the summer, but I am hearing raves about the third "Bourne" film with Matt Damon. I have a feeling I will be one of those who anoints it as the sleeper hit of the year. (Aside: thanks to Paul Greengrass's expert and no-frills direction of "The Bourne Supremacy," the producers of the Bond films stripped their cash-cow bare of any non-essential CG action and made what is arguably the best Bond film of all time.) At any rate, Bruce Willis is still a force in the action genre and proved worthy of yet another adventure for detective John McClane. The business with the collapsing freeway was heart-stopping and was accomplished, I hear, without much in the way of computerized magic.

Yes, I did see "Transformers." The less said about it, the better.

Don't Know Much 'Bout History

The latest issue of "Vanity Fair" offers a scathing rebuke of the Bush Administration's apparent lack of intellectual rigor and wholesale ignorance of historical precedent vis a vis Iraq. The piece, written by the late David Halberstam (a senseless early death via car accident), takes the president and his "history boys" (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz) to task for stumbling blindly into the Iraq quagmire as the price for doing the "peaceful" business of democracy in a world threatened by Evil. Halberstam doesn't pull punches in his critique of George W. Bush as an intellectually lazy and doctrinaire nincompoop who uses his mis-reading of "history" as a convenient and not very apt excuse for everything he believes, when a nod to God doesn't suffice. In Halberstam's view, the White House, in constant defense of the chief executive, cherry-picks historical references to support his foreign policy view-of-the-week. Halberstam is especially critical of the Bush Administration's bizarre appropriation of Democrat Harry Truman as the latest philosophical Flavor of the Month. Bush, he says, sees himself as the savior of a peaceful world beset by a Nazi-like fanaticism. The fact that the World War II paradigm doesn't fit apparently is of no concern in the West Wing. Simply put, Saddam was no Hitler. Further muddying the intellectual ministrations that pass for thinking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the moronic despotism of the vice president, a man who still sees the world in black and white, when all the brightest minds in Washington urge him to accept that we live in very gray times. If there is any justice in this world, Cheney and his partner-in-war-crimes, Donald Rumsfeld, will get their legal due when the Bushies are run out of Washington. The fact that they continue to profess confidence in the appallingly stupid and insanely expensive campaign in Iraq suggests that the cannibis in the White House is of superior quality, or they are now totally blind to their own incompetence and vanity.